Labor Rights Following CAFTA-DR

Workers rally

Since the enactment of free trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA-DR, there have been numerous accounts of labor violations in addition to a heavy presence of child labor in the member states of Central and Latin America. The U.S State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices between 2002 and 2006 stated that workforce oppression was the third most frequently occurring violation in Latin America, occurring roughly fifty-two percent of the time in examined cases. Although these accounts have been prevalent in most if not all of the member states of CAFTA, this analysis will also discuss violations occurring in Ecuador, Mexico, and Brazil due to similar violations. This research will focus on the most frequently occurring violations in the above mentioned countries, which have been divided into the following sections: lack of enforcement of labor policies, labor unions and collective bargaining, foreign corporations and domestic labor laws, health and safety hazards, women in the workforce, and child and slave labor.


Lack of Enforcement of Labor Policies

Joshua M. Kagan in his Workers’ Rights in the Mexican Maquiladora Sector argues that the problem regarding labor and human rights in Mexico and other countries is not with the law itself, but with its enforcement. No one in the member states of CAFTA-DR or NAFTA is holding governments responsible for labor policy violations, or for focusing solely on creating employment and foreign investment at the expense of human rights. Governments in these Central and Latin American countries are not willing to increase their labor standards, for fear of driving the headquarters of multinational corporations elsewhere. Many governments justify their neglection of human rights by claiming that the only way to deal with the poverty and unemployment in their countries is through focusing on permanent employment rather than dealing with regulations that make sure violations do not occur.


Labor Unions and Collective Bargaining 

There has been a lack of workers receiving individual representation in Central and Latin America because of the anti-union measures taken by employers, leading to various restrictions placed on unions. The inability for workers to collectively bargain within member states of these trade agreements is often believed to be an effect of competitive manufacturing export industries. Collective bargaining would allow for workers to combine and increase their bargaining powers to influence both employers and legislation in their countries, something that has been missing. Many unions are also afraid to take action regarding the protection of their workers due to the threat of businesses leaving their countries for other developing countries. Finally, because unemployment is very high in these member states, workers who do end up coming together to strike for better conditions in their work environment are easily replaceable by others who are frantically searching for work to make ends meet.

Foreign Corporations and Domestic Labor Laws

The increased presence of multinational corporations in the early 1900s has lead to ongoing violations of human rights and labor rights of workers in factories, assembly lines, and plantations such as those in Ecuadorian banana plantations and the Mexican maquiladoras. Corporations like the Dole Food Company and Chiquita Brand enjoy privileges and immunity in Central and Latin American countries that they do not enjoy in their own home countries. Establishing headquarters in these developing countries allows these foreign companies to operate under lower standards, which unfortunately results in disregard of domestic labor laws and thus the mistreatment of workers. In addition, foreign corporations in Central and Latin American countries do not enforce the rights of workers granted by signed international laws and treaties such as the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Often times, these companies do not know the established domestic laws of the countries they are operating in. In addition, there is a lack of enforcement of international human rights laws because of the unwillingness of countries to give up their national sovereignty, making them less likely to enforce these international human rights laws in their countries. Many human rights activists are pushing for key players such as the United States to be responsible for holding these multinational corporations responsible for abiding by international and domestic law to protect the workers, and to provide unions and non-government agencies with tools to improve the social and economic standards of living for workers through better wages.  Many Central and Latin American countries depend on these corporations for foreign investment, which comes at the expense of human rights. As argued by Pedro Cisneros in Free Trade’s Effect on Mexican and Brazilian Labor Law, countries should strive for labor policies that value workers’ rights while simultaneously promoting a competitive and flexible market.


Health and Safety Hazards

Workers in plantations and assembly lines such as Mexico’s maquiladoras face several health and safety hazards due to the lower standards foreign competitions are allowed to operate under. These workers are exposed daily to dust-born chemicals and gas or vapor exposure, which have resulted in many cases of birth defects in children born to past or present workers. Many times workers have reported not being trained on safety regulations of the machinery used in the factories and assembly lines, nor are they provided with proper updated safety equipment in the case of an emergency; many argue this is done by employers in an effort to improve the efficiency and speed of factory procedures. These workers have a right to favorable conditions under the UDHR, but are often neglected by employers and governments who fail to follow established labor policies.  In addition, many workers in foreign companies have working hours that exceed what is legally mandated for a workweek, exceeding more than forty-five hours per week. Excess work and the threat of losing jobs if efficient productivity is not kept creates a stressful environment for workers working in these substandard conditions, which make a negative impact on their health.


Women in the Workforce

Many female workers in factories, plantations and assembly lines in Central and Latin America face numerous cases of discrimination, especially when they are in the majority. Many female workers such as in the maquiladoras of Mexico reported being subject to frequent pregnancy tests where failure to comply could potentially cost their jobs. Those who are found pregnant while applying are prevented from receiving jobs, while those who become pregnant as workers are released without pay. Many female workers have also claimed that birth-control pills were distributed while on the job.  This is an attempt by these employers to avoid policies in Mexcio that entitle female workers to six weeks paid maternity leave before and after their delivery dates as well as job security after in the form of their previous positions.


Child and Slave Labor

There have been numerous reports on child labor in the member states of the CAFTA-DR as well as NAFTA, where children as young as eight are exploited in the workforce. Time spent in these brutal work environments prevents these children from receiving a proper education, to which they are entitled to under the Declaration of Human Rights. According to ILO Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention No. 182, there are still 5.7 million children under minimum wage who are engaged in work in Latin America and the Caribbean. While most tend to work in agricultural sectors, others work in more risky environments where they are exposed to dangerous equipment and hazardous chemicals

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